Tag Archives: ishumar

tuareg autotune

Abdoul Kader (Tanoutetanoute)

Abdoul Kader (Tanoutetanoute)

Abdoul Kader – Alhadi

Autotune, the notorious pitch correcting vocal effect, has seemingly found its way into every perceivable genre and style of music in every corner of the world. In the genre of Tuareg guitar however, the wanton use is confined to Niger where modern Tuareg compositions have nudged up against the slickly produced autotuned Hausa pop music in a near seamless melding. This is as much geographic as it is cultural. Hausa culture lies on both sides of the Niger/Nigeria border and Agadez, Niger’s capital of Tuareg guitar is majority Hausa speaking. Northern Nigeria’s film industry Kannywood dominates the VCD market throughout Niger even among non-Native Hausa speakers.

For many years, the influence of Hausa music in Tuareg guitar was a pragmatic concern. Nigeria has a plethora of studios with well trained engineers, and a destination for Tuareg guitarists looking to record an album. Such was the case with the two first instances of tuareg autotune – Mdou Moctar in Sokoto, and Abdoul Kader in Kano. Today Agadez hosts a number of studios. Modeled on the Nigeria, these new studios are largely electronic, relying on computer based composition and arrangement and leaning away from live instruments.

Moussa Tchingou, Zone Tuareg

Moussa Tchingou, Zone Tuareg

Moussa Tchingou – Zone Tuareg

While the first incidents of this Hausa pop/Tuareg guitar cultural exchange were largely accidental – Mdou’s autotuned Anar was recorded in 2008 – the resulting style of music is emerging as a definitive trend. I just received some of the new album of Agadez youth outfit Zone Tuareg, and they seem to be only continuing in this vein. It’s not yet a genre and there is no designation for these studio productions, but the number of music recorded with this particular melding of Tuareg and Hausa pop is expanding. As the genre of Tuareg folk guitar further twists in new directions, it’s a challenge to a hegemonic definition of the ishumar guitar sound, and a glimpse at a diversified future.

two sides of illighadad


The new record of Fatou Seidi Ghali and Alamnou Akrouni – “Les Filles de Illighadad” – might be called “traditional music,” for lack of a better word. It’s that music that fills the day to day aspect, a constant familiar sound. It’s hard to talk about, because its corollarly so clearly does not exist in the industrial centers or the so-called “Western” world. It’s rural music. It’s village music. It’s music for when you don’t have electricity, immediate Youtube access to every recorded sound. It’s music that exists when performance trumps playback. The term village music or rural music might be better, as any claims to it’s authenticity or “traditionalist” elements would be work apart. In any case, every small village its performers, sometimes traveling about for local festivities (incidentally, I met Alamnou years prior, and only realized it when assembling the record). Such is the case with “Les Filles de Illighadad.”

Fatou and Alamnou live in the aforementioned village, a tiny assemblance of mud houses thrown together in the scrubby Sahel of central Niger. I visit in the rainy season (previously), when the countryside is innaudated with still pools of water. Ghostly white egrets perch on half submerged trees, while in the distance tall camels slough there way through the muck. The latter, slow moving and giant, have something almost prehistoric about them in this context. I’m not used to seeing camels in a swamp. The desert is vibrant and green at this time of year, after the rains have parched the otherwise thirsty landscape. The desert here is cyclical, and follows a predictable schedule.

Fatou plays an old blue guitar, chipped and dried, slightly bent. The extremes of weather are not easy on musical instruments. She plays a long session, moving seamlessly from one song to another, many covers of of Etran Finatawa whose music is renowned in this part of Niger. Fatou’s guitar playing is measured and calm, and while we record outside under the trees, it is music transformed by context and place. From the vantage of far away, from a computer screen, it is easy to imagine a singular Niger, even a singular Tuareg identity. But there are many lives and many ways of living. The village of Illighadad is a world apart from Agadez, from Niamey – both major cities in their own right, dense with people, noise, and the trappings of modernity. Fatou’s guitar speaks to a different pace. The days in Illighadad are long, and time is not measured by hours, meetings, or even by the muezzins prayer call – but by the suns passage, the movement of the animals, and the sound of the crickets.

photo by Marcus Milckephoto by Marcus Milcke

Fatou insists that she doesn’t just play guitar, but plays and performs tende as well (“better!”) with her cousin Alamnou, a renowned vocalist. So at night, they assemble in the village. The “tende” is named for the drum, where two woman sit on pestles flanking a mortar, stretched with an animal skin. In a place with the absence of sound, no hum of electricity, no cars, no white noise, and no physical impediments, the tende travels far. As the village plays, people begin to come. You can see them in the distance, little lights dancing in the darkness, growing in intensity, from every direction, like fireflies drawn in from the night. Singers exchange the lead, backed by the chorus of Illighadad echoing in polyphonic harmonies, with staccato clapping, led by a deep and continuous thumping. We stay listening for hours, until the voices are weary of singing and the hands grow tired of the drums, and the crowd disperses through the darkness to find some sort of peace.

While we had some original concept to meet Fatou and record her guitar, every night was accompanied by tende. In the end, we produced a recording with two sides – each unbroken sessions, representing the two sides of the music: the mellow guitar and personal expression of Fatou, and the cooperative and constant village music of the tende. Fatou’s guitar music is remarkable in some way because of identity. As one of only two Tuareg female guitarists in what is a male dominated genre, this was indeed my initial interest in coming to Illighadad. But Fatou exists far away from genre classifications. While she plays the guitar in the day, it is the tende at night – a reminder of the village music that inspired the guitar, and continues to do so. It reads to me as a suggestion that the two musics can and do exist simultaneously. And that different worlds may as well.

The new record from Les Filles de Illighadad is available from the shop on vinyl and via bandcamp.

abba’s home recordings, or how whatsapp is changing everything (pt 1)

The sand in Mauritania always carries the scent of the sea. You can tell you’re far from the iron rich dust of Timbouctou. Sitting under a tent in a wide empty space of sand and brush, dominated by hulking concrete half finished mansions, I meet with Tuareg guitarist and longtime collaborator Abba Gargando.

I first met Abba after hearing a grainy cassette playing outside of Bassikinou. Over the years we have met various times, though always near his home. This time, we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Abba had been here for over two years now, living between here and refugee camps in the east. Ex military, he now works as a guardian, moving his family and tent outside the houses as they are being built to scare away would be thieves.

While we are talking about “what to do next” he plays me some songs he has recorded on his cellphone. A drum machine clicks out a rhythm, while he strikes out the notes in mechanical time, singly softly. “I recorded this on my cellphone in the camps,” he explains. “It was night so I had to play quietly.”

We decide to piece together an album. The recordings are lofi – but so is Abba’s entire oeuvre; he is known today because of his music on cellphones, playing through the tiny speakers. The album could be a sort of homage to the cellphones recordings and listening, recorded by Abba. Unfortunately, he only has a few recordings on his phone, so he suggests to regroup all the youth from Timbouctou.

That night, he organizes a small gathering. We collect songs from the cellphones of Nouakchott’s Gargando-in-exile. There are hundreds of mp3s – recorded in festivals in Timbouctou, weddings in Nouakchott, or small informal sessions like tonight. Abba rewards the group with a few hours of guitar. When he starts playing, they switch on their phones, start recording, and throw them onto the floor.

I have no chance to listen to all the music until later, on the other side of the world. I make a selection and check with Abba. Five years prior this would have been arduous task – playing the songs over the phone connection, waiting for an SMS with the correct spelling, repeat. But times had changed. I send him the files over WhatsApp, to which he replies, identifying the songs and altering the tracklist to his choosing.

His final record hints and what will likely be the next phase of artists control over their own work, as it translates into the West. The role of record label/blog/writing about “the other” is as mediator between cultures, but rife with problematic issues of representation and exoticism. Holding to task the most exotic ethnography and offensive ‘world music’, it may be simplistic to think we can cut through decades of misappropriation with technology. But it does suggest the increasing role that artists may have in their creation and representation abroad – the Western mediators saying less, because it’s already being said.

mariam ahmed

Mariam Ahmed is a guitarist in Agadez, which in itself is not spectacular. With so many guitarists in the city, one needs not to search far. However, there are practically no female guitarists in Tuareg music and Mariam is perhaps one of a handful across the diaspora.

Tuareg guitar is largely a folk tradition of men. While not imposed by force, it is maintained by social norms of where the guitar appears. The long days of the ishumar, teapot slowly bubbling on coal, is a world segregated by gender. When guitar enters, it is in this male milieu (a world reflected in my recordings over the past years, which are mostly of male artists).

When I press her on the subject with a litany of thinly veiled questions about the gender dynamics of Tuareg guitar – “is it hard to be a female guitarist” – she simply shrugs and shakes her head. Later, Mdou posits that the bigger problem and prohibitions on playing music are class based – if family comes from a tradition of nobles and chiefs, or a religious lineage of marabouts. Mariam comes from neither, so can play shred in weddings.

I’m left expecting more, waiting for her to deliver some explanation. I begin to suspect that I’m more focused on this imagined conflict with a woman guitarist than anyone else. Later that evening, Mariam returns and we record three songs on her acoustic guitar. I finally stop asking questions and Mariam plays. She sings in a soft voice, carried by her acoustic guitar but with a driving pace. Part way through, the power cuts out and we’re left in total darkness. I can’t see anything. She keeps playing.

Mariam Ahmed (cover)

Niger Guitars Pt. 2

Haïdara and Abdoulaye live with their friends in a compound on the fringes of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The two concrete buildings house perhaps thirty students who have come here to attend the University. They are all from the town of Timia, an oasis in the Aïr mountains far up into the North of Niger. They are all here to study.

Haidara and Abdoulaye – Song 1

Though Niger is in theory one country, there remains divisions between the North and South – and huge differences between the cities and the country. As representatives of Timia, the student group is, in essence, a community in exile. Like immigrants living abroad, they maintain their connection to their home, visiting on vacations, and collectively forging a small enclave of Northerners. Although far removed, here they have the benefits of a global connectivity with regular access to the internet – in fact, I first meet the group via Facebook, who knowing of my impending visit, send me a short audio recording of Haïdara and Abdoulaye playing guitar.

Cellphone recording via FB

When we do finally meet, we are received with some fanfare. Nearly all of the students living in the house are crammed into one of the rooms to receive us – though I suspect more for Ahmed, from Amanar, whose stardom precedes him. His sometimes cynical lyrics chastise the powerful and corrupt and demand the creation of a Tuareg class of intellectuals, and we are at the exact people that he’s trying to reach. While Haïdara and Abdoulaye play guitar (perhaps more for Ahmed then for me) a youth named Adouma scrolls through a Word document on his laptop, anxious to share on of his projects. Contingent with his studies at the university, he has written a textbook with audio lessons for the Tamashek language of Niger, with accompanying Tifinagh.

In the North, the road to prosperity has been limited to a few options – the unpredictable tourist industry, the long shot musical career, competitive posts in the numerous NGOs, or dangerous black market smuggling. One of the continued complaints in the North is directed at the lack of education and opportunity – not always eloquently manifested, but expressed in a constant series of rebellions over the past decades.

When I lived in pre-rebellion Kidal, I regularly met with youth who would become instrumental in the overthrow of the Malian state, particularly in the utilization of technology to distribute their message. In a cyber cafe of the now defunct Maison de Luxembourg, I watched what would become an MNLA website launched on blogspot. Even then, the youth were ready for revolution, enamored with Che Guevara and inspired by the idealism of youth culture. They were already beyond peaceful reconciliation, products of Northern schools that for the most part, ignored them. Teachers from the capital, assigned to these outposts, were unable to speak Tamashek and even the most dedicated could be forgiven in their aparthy – sent to unfamiliar territories, with little or no support from the capital, they too were far from their families. Needless to say, Tuareg culture was not taught. I visited the Kidal high school library, and could not find a single book referencing the Tuareg. When I suggested to the soon to be revolutionaries that they compose an open letter to the Minister of Education demanding support and books, the idea seemed too small and inconsequential. Growing up in the shadow of Bamako, the Northern territories had too long existed in limbo, and their big dreams demanding big ideas.

While post rebellion Niger has followed a much different route, the student group from Timia is hopeful, a model of a new class that may usher in changes in the North countries. As ambassadors, or immigrants in exile, they remain “enfants de Timia”. While Haidara and Abdoulaye play guitar, their compositions are not remarkable for their unique style – but in their purposeful nostalgia creating an oasis in the capital. It is not just symbolic, but a very real and pragmatic collective environment where resources are pooled to support one another in their struggle.

Haidara and Abdoulaye – Song 2

When Ahmed is out of the room, the students whisper to one another, finally asking if Ahmed will play a song. I ask him, but he politely refuses to their disappointment (though they do their best to hide it, and are somewhat allayed by a group photograph with the star). When we leave, I ask him why he wouldn’t play, and why he seemed discouraged. But it was March, the rebellion had just begun in Mali, and his family was left behind. The message that was so readily embraced by the students of Timia had not been heard at his home in Kidal, and now a war was raging.